The Daytona Beach News-Journal
Alicia Shepard was a pint-sized 6-year-old when a hulking red fire truck came thundering into the parking lot of Palm Terrace Elementary School.
Her little jaw dropped, and she knew in an instant what she wanted to do when she grew up.
“They drove up and started that dream,” said Shepard, who’s 33 years old now. “I was just stunned. I said ‘I’m going to drive a fire truck someday.’
Life put a few detours in Shepard’s path, and she didn’t start working as a firefighter until January 2019, about 12 years later than she had hoped.
But she got where she wanted to be, and she made some local history in the process.
When Shepard was hired, she became Daytona Beach’s first Black female firefighter. The department had Black men in its ranks for decades, and women had become Daytona Beach firefighters for years before Shepard first put on the Daytona Beach uniform.
But she was the first Black woman to successfully complete training and join the department.
“Firefighter Shepard serves as a demonstration to our community as to the accessibility of a career with the Daytona Beach Fire Department,” said Fire Chief Dru Driscoll. “Serving such a diverse community, we in Daytona Beach strive to provide a welcoming and diverse workplace full of opportunity.”
Shepard never set out to be a trailblazer. She has just always wanted to fight fires and help people. But on Tuesday night she will be honored for making local history at an event at Bonner Elementary School.
‘A Homegrown Hero’
The Precise Professional Firefighters of Daytona Beach and the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters will recognize Shepard during a one-hour celebration in the school’s auditorium that begins at 6 p.m.
“As we close out Women’s History Month, we would like to show a special recognition of a homegrown hero, a young woman that has overcome personal challenges in pursuit to attain a lifetime goal and become the first to do so,” said Gabriel Shuler, vice president of the Precise Professional Firefighters of Daytona Beach.
“The Daytona Beach Fire Department is excited to hear of Firefighter Alicia Shepard’s special recognition as a homegrown hero,” Driscoll said.
At Tuesday evening’s ceremony Precise, a group that supports and recruits minority firefighters, will also honor pioneering Black male firefighters of Daytona Beach.
“These special men took the charge of becoming some of the first Black firefighters in the city during a difficult time period,” said Shuler, a lieutenant with the Port Orange Fire Department. “We would like to show them our gratitude for opening doors and helping to remove some of the barriers that prevented the hiring of minorities in the fire service.”
The men were also honored earlier this year when the Daytona Beach Fire Department hosted a “welcome back home” event for several of the department’s first Black firefighters.
“Welcoming home the city’s earliest Black firefighters, originally hired under the CETA program, offered an opportunity to learn and share stories of our department’s past,” Driscoll said.
Diversifying the Ranks
There are currently 104 Daytona Beach firefighters. Of that total, there are five females that include one battalion chief, one lieutenant, one driver/engineer and two firefighters.
There are 16 Black firefighters, more than half of whom are in the management rank of battalion chief and lieutenants.
“Many of these Black firefighters are also instructors at the Fire Academy, which helps us to reach the enrolled students and show that they are able to not only achieve employment opportunities at the Daytona Beach Fire Department but also potentially reach a high-ranking position in the fire service,” said Sasha Staton, the Daytona Beach Fire Department’s public information officer.
Shepard has lived her whole life in Daytona Beach. When she graduated from Atlantic High School in 2006, she thought she was headed for Daytona State College’s firefighter training program.
Her dream of being a firefighter was as strong as ever, but she had no one to guide her and didn’t know how to get started. She also didn’t have tuition money.
She said she went to a career center, and they discouraged her from trying to join the fire department. She said they were reluctant to give her any tuition money and took months to answer her questions.
So she went to cosmetology school instead.
“I loved doing hair, but I always had it in the back of my mind that I still wanted to be a firefighter,” Shepard said.
‘I pushed and I pushed’
After some time passed she tried to enroll in Daytona State College’s firefighter program, but she was told at one point there weren’t enough students for a class.
Then she started having children, and eventually found herself raising kids as a single mother. Her children are now 16, 13 and 10.
She did landscaping work for a while, and eventually she went to school to become an emergency medical technician. But it wasn’t until 2018 that she was finally able to get her firefighter education and training.
The physical training was tough, Shepard said. She did a lot of push-ups. A lot.
“I was like ‘what did I sign up for?’ ” she said. “But I buckled down, and I pushed and I pushed.”
At times it all seemed too hard, raising kids and starting a new career.
“I wanted to quit,” Shepard conceded. “I felt like maybe it was a sign when I failed the state test the first time. People behind me said, ‘no, this is your dream.’ “
She persisted, and now she’s being trained as a paramedic. Her goal is to one day be a lieutenant in the fire department, and she also wants to start a program to encourage kids to consider a career as a firefighter.
“I want to tell little girls you can be whatever you want,” she said.
She works out of Fire Station 1, located at the corner of Orange Avenue and Beach Street. She said she stays very busy, and has already been on 10 structure fires. But she enjoys the work.
It’s incredibly rewarding to save lives, she said, but an older woman who just needed help getting off the floor a few times also warmed her heart.
“She said, ‘can you stay? I want to adopt you,’ ” Shepard said. “It makes me feel great inside.”
The woman was so grateful she brought sandwiches to the fire department.
Shepard also enjoys her co-workers.
“My crew is awesome,” she said. “I get along great with the guys. I’m the only female on my shift, but it’s hard not to get along with me. I’m a people person.”
She said sometimes she still can’t believe she’s living her dream.
“I look at it every day like ‘wow. I’m finally here,’ ” Shepard said. “It’s everything I always imagined.”
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Daytona Beach’s first Black female firefighter to be honored
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